To help pave the way to the National Eucharistic Congress July 17-23, 2024, we are thrilled to present the American Eucharistic Witnesses. These are holy men and women who lived, loved, and served on the very soil upon which we now stand. They all testify—in unique and powerful ways—to what it means to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist and go on mission with him for the life of the world. Each month from now through next July, we will feature a new witness. Old and young, men and women, representing different cultural families and vocations, these men and women show us—in living color—what holiness looks like. We are also thrilled to partner with American artist Connor Miller, who is creating an original woodcut print of each witness to help us visually engage with this creative new series.
Growing up in Chicago, Francis E. George was drawn to the priesthood from as early as five years old. In fact, it was a common occurrence in the George home that young “Frannie,” as Cardinal George was called then, would playact the Mass with his sister, Margaret. But after they almost set the house on fire, they were forbidden from using candles.
Cardinal George’s earlier interest shifted to a tug at his heart toward a vocation to the priesthood after receiving his First Holy Communion on May 6, 1945. Almost four decades after his 1963 ordination—four decades of celebrating Mass—George wrote about its great impact.
“Each time the Eucharist is celebrated,” he wrote, “the universe changes. It is for the world to catch up to these changes and for the Church to be Christ’s instrument in effecting them.”
Much can be said about the wisdom contained in these two short sentences. But, in short, it means that each of us has the opportunity to change the world in our own embodiment of the Eucharistic mystery.
This was certainly the case for Cardinal George. His life illustrates time and again that suffering has a purpose and is transformative when it is joined to Christ’s in the Eucharist. When we can live like this, we are glorifying the Lord by our lives, as we hear in one of the formulas used to dismiss us from Mass.
Through his wisdom and witness, Cardinal George regularly articulated how our call to glorify Christ has sacrifice as a constitutive element. He once wrote that we “need to become ever clearer and more intentional about how we are to witness to the Lord and give him glory through the offering of our lives, the joining of our self-sacrifice to his.”
George taught and showed us this, firstly, because he lived this way.
It began when—at age thirteen, after polio struck—his life’s ambition seemed to hang in the balance. He learned that the disability that resulted from the virus meant he would not be ordained a priest in his home Chicago archdiocese.
The effects of the polio dogged him for the rest of his life. But he regarded it as a gift in the end, for it taught him how to live like Christ: not just a unity in his suffering but also an enablement to make an offering of his life for the good of others.
While in the hospital for months as a teenager, as Margaret recalled, “Frannie” would occasionally fall silent and be found looking up at the Cross. He was learning then, as ought we all, that our lives should be an oblation that finds meaning through the hope in Christ and his sacrifice. This was where he learned to give himself away for others.
I can’t quite imagine what that felt like for a boy of his age. But I know what he did with it. After pursuing seminary studies with the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a missionary congregation of French origin, George would go on to be a leader in the congregation. As such, he was an agent for reform and renewal, and he led his brothers and those they served closer to Christ.
Later in life, amid the busyness of his office as Archbishop in Chicago and many other extra positions he held, including vice president and president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, George faced a new set of sufferings as the result of bladder cancer. “The privileged way of giving glory to Christ in the Church is to suffer martyrdom,” he wrote on the occasion of his tenth anniversary as Chicago’s archbishop in 2007. “Not yet called to bloody martyrdom, we… need to become ever clearer and more intentional about how we are to witness to the Lord and give him glory through the offering of our lives, the joining of our self-sacrifice to his.” Through every imaginable difficulty, Cardinal George truly persevered in giving witness to the Lord through the offering of his life.
When asked about his legacy at the end of his time as archbishop, George diverted the question back to Christ.
“At some point, Christ will question me: ‘What have you done with my people? Are they holier because of your ministry? Are they more generous? More loving toward others?’ In short, you are my legacy.”
It fascinates me that George himself wanted only to be remembered as a conduit for Christ’s action in the Church and the world, and in this he was successful. Many are the stories I have heard about this truth. He was a friendly voice on the phone for a deacon diagnosed with cancer. A shepherd for a priest troubled by a personal crisis. A voice for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. A prophet who could read the signs of the times and call the people to conversion. A friend who gave a troubled parishioner his private phone number when she needed a friend. A neighbor who could talk to you as if you were the only person who mattered. A cardinal who could provide the leadership his brother bishops needed. A man of suffering who nonetheless daily offered himself to Christ for the good of others.
Through pain, suffering, and sacrifice, he persevered and made an offering of his life for others. This is Eucharistic living.
Cardinal George once observed that “no matter what the world thinks of us, no matter how our position in society might shift, we are at the center of God’s plan for the whole world. And what we do in celebrating the Eucharist is the most important thing that happens in this world.” He added, “Every time the Mass is celebrated the center of the universe is on this altar, and that’s what keeps us all going.”
That’s certainly what kept him going. That’s what enabled him to live as he once taught: “The only thing we take with us when we die is what we have given away.” That’s what shaped, defined, and gave meaning to his life. That’s what made him a man of pastoral availability, who poured out his life in service to Christ and the Church.
Help the children and youth in your life grow closer to Jesus in the Eucharist through the witness of Cardinal George today! Download Katie Bogner's children's activities—perfect for home, classroom and parish settings!
Michael R. Heinlein is author of Glorifying Christ: The Life of Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., and is a promised member of the Association of Pauline Cooperators.